Unknown Known

It was a long week and I was grateful to be in my car heading home. Every day this week I’ve put a smile on my face as I’ve stepped into the office and showed an upbeat attitude, when all along I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. It was a supreme effort just to get out of bed each day, let alone get into the office and get work done. Getting into my car at the end of each day was like finding a safe room in a storm.

A few weeks ago when my boss quit his job, my first thoughts were, “Don’t panic, be patient.” I trusted the company’s leaders would follow best practices and make wise decisions. But it was strangely quiet in the executive hallway as the days passed. My co-workers began to ask questions about the future and whether we needed to be worried. “There are so many unknowns,” one woman said. Nothing like the word unknown to put my fears front and center.

Growing up, I had never considered that there could be so much emphasis placed on the things we know or don’t know. I mean, really, either you know or you don’t. There isn’t any in between. But that all changed for me during the months after 9-11, when elected leaders and national experts started talking about unknowns.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. 

Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

Those were confusing and uncertain days for Americans. We felt as if the very foundation of our lives had been shattered and we were standing on a bed of pebbles atop quicksand. Mr. Rumsfeld was trying to make people feel better by saying there are things we know and things we don’t know but be patient and we’ll figure it all out. For many of us in that moment, his words just made things worse.

I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that Mr. Rumsfeld came to mind tonight as I was driving home. I was thinking of my new boss “Matt.” He’s worked at our company longer than I have been there, so he’s always been a “known” to me. And yet, he’s not someone I’ve worked with on a daily basis and our interactions have been limited. And for that reason, there are a lot of things about Matt that I don’t know. And now that Matt has decided to earn his pay and get involved in setting our department to rights, there is all kinds of speculation about who he will hire and whether he’ll transfer some people to other departments. The uncertainty just fuels more gossip and tension. There is so much we don’t know. As Mr. Rumsfeld would say, there are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Change is hard! It causes headaches and disrupts long-held processes and patterns. And it will stay that way until enough time has passed without change that we all fall into new habits and we feel comfortable. So, in other words, be patient and it will all work out. I wonder if I’ll live that long.

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